Fabulous Florence: Part 4

One of the great things about Florence is that much of the art can still be seen in the churches for which they were originally designed.  There is so much great art in some of these churches they are virtually museums themselves.

In the 13th C, the two great preaching monastic orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, built churches on what were then the edges of town.  The churches were vast in size, to accommodate the large audiences for their sermons.  Over the centuries, notable local families endowed chapels within these churches and paid famous artists to decorate them, in order to advertise their own wealth and power.  Today, most of these families are gone, but their art remains.

Santa Croce, the Franciscan church, is most famous for who is buried there (Michelangelo, Galileo…) and for who is not (Dante).  The city never rescinded Dante’s order of banishment, even long after almost everyone had forgotten what the original argument had been about; Dante died in Ravenna.  Years later, the Florentines built a tomb for Dante in Santa Croce, and even commissioned a large statue on the 600th anniversary of his birth.  But the good citizens of Ravenna, who had sheltered Dante not only in life but for centuries of tumult thereafter, refused to give him up.  Can you blame them?

The saga of Galileo’s remains, though, has a happier ending. When Galileo died, he was not in good standing with the Papal authorities; to avoid controversy over his burial, the local Franciscans took charge of his remains. When, a century or so later, the Church started to have second thoughts about their treatment of the great scientist, the Franciscans produced his remains and erected a large monument to him inside Santa Croce.

The church includes both a late 13th C fresco of the life of St. Francis, done in the older Byzantine style, and an early 14th C depiction of the saint’s death, done by Giotto less than 50 years later.  Today, seeing these two frescoes side by side, it is possible to see just how revolutionary Giotto’s art must have seemed at the time.

Although the tombs get most of the attention, and most of the publicly available photos, my particular favorites include a marvelous Annunciation by Donatello, a pulpit depicting the life of St. Francis by Benedetto di Maiano, and a tomb executed by Desiderio de Settignano, a promising pupil of Donatello who unfortunately died young (which is why you’ve likely never heard of him).

The main altar was recently restored, which means you can see it again without scaffolding.

Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church, is another repository of spectacular art.

A depiction of the Trinity, by Masaccio, features one of the earliest uses of perspective.  It is fascinating to compare this to a painting of St. Anne, Mary and the baby Jesus in the Uffizi by the same artist – a kind of “female trinity.”

The church is most famous, though, for two famous fresco cycles:  one set depicting the lives o the Apostles Phillip and John, by Filippino Lippi, and another depicting the lives of St. John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, by Domenico Ghirlandaio.  Although the frescoes depict Biblical events, many of the details are contemporary, providing an enormous amount of information about contemporary clothing, housing, even childbirth customs.

Many of the faces of the onlookers depicted local notables, which must have provided a great deal of enjoyment for contemporary visitors.  Maybe it’s just me, but Ghirlandaio’s third guy on the right, with the black hat, sure looks a lot like a time-travelling Jerry Brown.


Church of Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel: Scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1485-1490)

Brancacci Chapel.   On the other side of the Arno, the Brancacci Chapel, in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, has magnificent frescoes done by two of the best artists of the early 15th C, Masaccio and Masolino, in collaboration, with additions by Filippino Lippi some decades later. The frescoes depict the life of St. Peter, and includes, along with the usual miracles, some relatively unusual stories, such as St.  Peter healing the sick with his shadow.   Surely the most unnerving, though, is the depiction of the death of Ananias.  According to the Acts of the Apostles, early Christians lived communally; the wealthier among them contributed money to the community, according to their abilities, and the money was distributed among the poor, according to their needs.  One wealthy man, Ananias, secretly held back a portion of his money.  Peter figured out right away what was going on, and asked him why he was lying to God, whereupon Ananias dropped dead on the spot.  The history of the early church was a lot more complicated than we sometimes imagine.

Santa Felicità.   Florence is a city where it’s often worth just peeking into a church to see what’s inside.  The tiny church of Santa Felicità, for example, has two great works by the 16th C artist Pontormo.  In his take on the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary is none too pleased on being approached by an angel – whatever the message, her life as she knew it was over. And you have to look at the Deposition for quite a while before you realize there’s no actual crucifix in the painting – very post-modern.

Bargello.   No trip to Florence is complete without a visit to the Bargello, a sculpture museum.The Donatello David, completed around 1440, is believed to be the first nude statue in European art since classical antiquity.  David’s androgynous appearance stands in sharp contrast to the more famous version by Michelangelo, executed some decades later.

Bargello: David - Donatello, c. 1440

Bargello: David – Donatello, c. 1440

The museum also includes magnificent work by Desiderio di Settignano, Luca Della Robbia,  Andrea del Verrocchio, Benedetto di Maiano, and the young Michelangelo.

Bargello: Bacchus - MIchelangelo, 1496-7

Bargello: Bacchus – Michelangelo, 1496-7

There is also a decorative arts collection which includes some spectacular ivories, some dating back to the 9th C, and some later work with decidedly non-religious content

Orsanmichele.  My favorite place in Florence, though, has to be the tiny church of Orsanmichele.  It was built in the early 14th C as a grain market – you can still see the chutes for grain delivery in some of the columns.  It was converted into a church for the city’s trade and craft guilds a few decades later.  Each guild commissioned a statue from a noted local sculptor.  For many centuries, these statues stood in niches in the church’s exterior, but eventually they were moved indoors.  These days you can see them close up in a (free!) museum upstairs, (the old grain silo).

Each guild chose its own subject – some were religious, some more personal.  The stone merchants chose to depict four of their own.  These guys could almost be talking to you today — you can even tell that one guy, immersed in his work, has forgotten to shave (some things never change).   The most impressive work, though, has got to the the doubting Thomas by Andrea del Verocchio, a work of such astonishing delicacy it’s hard to believe it was executed in bronze.

Until next time….

Bargello - museum selfie




Fabulous Florence (Part 3)

As is true in many historic Italian cities, the Duomo (cathedral) is part of a group of associated buildings, including a Baptistery, a Bell Tower, and a Museum.


The Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in Florence – construction started in the middle of the 11th C.  The building, like many medieval baptisteries, is in the shape of an octagon (signifying the 7 days of biblical Creation plus the 8th day, which is Paradise).  The interior is most notable for its magnificent 13th C mosaic ceiling, featuring a depiction of the Last Judgment, Heaven and Hell, and Biblical stories on seven concentric circles.  As always, the depictions of Satan and the damned are the most interesting, although Christ’s feet are pretty wild.

Many famous Florentines were baptized here, including Dante Alighieri.  Maybe when they were splashing water over his face, he looked up, saw the multiple levels of the afterlife, and thought, “Maybe I’ll write a poem about that someday”?

In 1401, the city announced a competition for the design of new doors for the Baptistery.  The jury eventually awarded the commission to two young artists:  an architect named Filippo Brunelleschi and a goldsmith/sculptor named Lorenzo Ghiberti.  Brunelleschi’s ego apparently got in the way of his being a collaborator, so he dropped out; he later built the famous Dome next door.

Ghiberti was only 21 when he received this commission, and he spent the better part of his life working on the Baptistery.  After spending 21 years completing the first set of doors, he received a commission for a second set of doors, which took a further 27 years to complete.  Fortunately he lived to be 77.   He set up a whole workshop to execute the project on which many younger artists trained – one reason why the date of this contest is sometimes used as the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance.  Michelangelo was so impressed by the second set of doors that he called them the Gates of Paradise.

The 1966 flood ripped the doors from their moorings and sent them sailing down the city’s narrow streets, sometimes with their panels detached.  Fortunately, all the panels were recovered, and the original doors, now restored, are preserved in the Museum across the piazza.

Museo del Opere del Duomo

Many of Europe’s great cathedrals have moved their important works to special museums, located like this one not far from the cathedral itself.  Few such museums, however, have the richness of this particular collection, which includes  the originals of both sets of Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Donatello’s haunting depiction of Mary Magdalene as a penitent hermit, and Michelangelo’s last Pietà, in which the artist uses his own face as the face of Nicodemus.

The museum also includes a lot of sculptures that used to appear in various spots inside and outside the church, often at great heights. These pieces are now displayed indoors where ordinary mortals can actually see them.

One of the most unusual pieces is the altar of St. John the Baptist, which was executed by master Florentine silversmiths over the span of more than a century.   I’m betting medieval visitors went straight for the scene with St. John’s head on a plate, just as we did.


Since most of the best work that used to be in the Duomo is now in the Museum, the interior of the Duomo itself seems very bare.  Fortunately, it is now possible to climb Brunelleschi’s Dome from the inside.  A catwalk along the inside of the dome allows you to view Vasari’s dramatic Last Judgment frescoes up close.  Once again, the artist seems to be having more fun drawing the damned than the saved.  The final ascent, up what was originally a workmens’ staircase, emerges in the lantern above the dome, which offers spectacular views of the city.



Fabulous Florence (Part 2)

Uffizi Gallery

How does one write about what is probably the most amazing small museum in the world?  You can get through the place in 2 hours (3 if you look at the non-Italian collection).  The exhibition rooms, recently renovated, give you enough space and light to see the pictures and, if you go off-season and early in the morning (the museum opens at 8:15) it’s not impossibly crowded.

Ponte Vecchio is suprisingly empty at 8 am

Ponte Vecchio is surprisingly empty at 8 am

It’s impossible to cover everything, so here are some of my particular favorites.

The two Madonnas in the first room, offer an interesting contrast in how art was starting to change even as early as the 14th C.  One Madonna, by the Sienese artist Duccio, is executed in the older expressionless style, although Mary has a ghost of a smile. In the Giotto Madonna, though, Mary is looking right at you.  The Renaissance goes Boink.

Nobody does women’s faces like Botticelli, and the Uffizi has several rooms full of them.

Filippo Lippi’s models for his Madonna and Child are believed to his girlfriend and his baby son.  (Lippi, a monk, wasn’t exactly supposed to be fathering children, but his art was so lovely the authorities looked the other way.)  That baby grew up to be Filippino Lippi, who also did some pretty spectacular Madonnas.

This portrait of the Holy Family was done by Luca Signorelli, an Umbrian artist who did most of his work on walls, instead of as moveable paintings, and who is therefore not as well known as he might be outside of Italy.   I love Joseph’s scarf in this painting. The Italian commentary notes that this design must have been in vogue at the time, because it appears in a number of paintings by different artists done around the same time.  Italian men and their scarves.


Galleria degli Uffizi, Holy Family, Luca Signorelli (1490); Joseph’s distinctive scarf must have been in vogue at the time, since it appears in many paintings of this period

Leonardo da Vinci is represented by a wonderful Annunciation.  He is also believed to have assisted his teacher Verrocchio in his painting of John the Baptist.

Raphael is known for his portraits, but I was charmed by his depiction of John the Baptist as a leopard-skin wearing child.

The artist Bronzino did a lot of official portraits for his patron Duke Cosimo, but somehew even though he gets every detail of Eleonora’s sumptuous dress right he doesn’t forget to show a mother’s love for her son.

Galleria degli Uffizi: Eleanora di Toledo and Son - Bronzino, c. 1545

Galleria degli Uffizi: Eleanora di Toledo and Son – Bronzino, c. 1545

And I’ve always liked the portraits of Bartolomeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi.  Even though they are done individually you somehow get the sense that this is a happy couple.

Caravaggio is not well represented here (he did most of his work in Rome) but his painting of Abraham and Isaac is a masterwork.  The artist captures Abraham, knife already drawn, at the moment the angel tells him to stop.  Isaac is still terrified, and the little lamb whose face is next to Isaac’s hasn’t figured out that he’s next in line.


Galleria degli Uffizi: The Sacrifice of Issac – Caravaggio, 1602.

The Uffizi also has a tipsy Bacchus, a painting whose influence is still being felt.

The Uffizi also has a fine collection of art by non-Italian artists, including a fascinating Madonna by Durer, an old Rabbi by Rembrandt, a rare naturalist painting by Velazquez (check out the masterful depiction of the glass) and a portrait of a bullfighter by Goya.

The caption to a Madonna by Flemish artist Hans Memling notes that the angel is handing baby Jesus an apple as a sign of his impending Crucifixion.  But it seems to me the angel has a rather devilish grin.  What do you think?


Galleria degli Uffizi: Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels – Hans Memling, 1491

When the Uffizi was first opened, the collection of ancient Greek and Roman sanctuary was regarded as particularly noteworthy.  The statues are still there, but these days excite less tourist interest.  One exception, though, are the Niobe statues, executed in he 1st C BC, which take up a whole room on the main floor.

Niobe, according to a Greek myth, was a woman who somewhat foolishly boasted to another woman, Latona, that she was the better mother because she had 14 children, and Latona only had 2.  Unfortunately for Niobe, Latona’s children were Apollo and Artemis.  Insulted, Latona got her immortal children to kill all of Niobe’s all too human offspring, one by one by one.  When Niobe realized what was happening, she begged to be allowed to keep the last of her daughters, whom she tried to shield with her cape.  Nope – the Greek gods didn’t do redemption.


Galleria degli Uffizi: Niobe trying to protect her youngest daughter (1st C BC): Niobe boasted to the goddess Latona, mother of Apollo and Diana, that she has 14 children while Latona had only 2; Latona arranged for the gods to kill all of them — Niobe pleaded in vain for them to spare her last surviving child. All the statues in this room were heavily damaged by a Mafia bomb blast in 1993, and restored in 2006.

This statue is particularly resonant for me because I saw it on my very first trip to Florence, in 1990.  This part of the gallery was out of service for many years due to a Mafia bombing in the early 1990s.  The Niobe room was badly damaged, and the statues needed significant restoration.  It’s nice to have them back, after so many years.

Pitti Palace

This palatial home of the later Medici is frustrating to visit.  The paintings are displayed on multiple levels and many rooms are poorly lit, which makes some of them difficult to see.  And unlike the Uffizi, where it seems every work is a masterpiece, the Pitti has far too many mediocre works.  There are some marvels, though, if you are patient.

Some of my particular favorites include:

  •  A Madonna feeding the infant Jesus by Artemisia Gentileschi, a remarkably gentle picture by an artist best known for her bloody depiction of Judith lopping off the head of Holofernes:


    Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery: Nursing Madonna, Artemisia Gentileschi (1609-1610); an unusually gentle image by a painter better known for her depiction of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes

  • Sweet-faced Madonnas by Filippo Lippi and Raphael:
  • A portrait by Raphael of a woman believed to be his lover:


    Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery: Woman with Veil, Raphael; believed to be a portrait of the artist’s girlfriend, Margerita Luti

  • A rare triple portrait by Giorgione, The Three Ages of Man.
    Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery:  The Three Ages (of man), Giorgione (1500-1)
    Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery: The Three Ages (of man), Giorgione (1500-1)


Fabulous Florence (Part 1)

We were lucky enough to be able to spend a week in Florence, just after the New Year holiday.  The weather was cold, but clear, so we were able to get quite a lot of walking done.

Since most of what there is to see in Florence involves this is going to be an extended art and history post, with a lot of photos — so many, in fact, that I may have to divide the material among several posts.  If you are really into this stuff, like we are, and want even more photos (with captions) you can go to my Google photo album.

Florence and the Medici

In order to understand why there is so much fabulous art in Florence, you first need to know a bit about the Medici.  The Medici were Florentine bankers who came to prominence in the 15th C, and whose principal client was the Pope.  (How there could be such a thing as “the Pope’s bankers” in an age where usury was still a sin is a fascinating story in itself, but one for another day.)

Florence at that time was a republic – noblemen, in fact, were barred from city government.  The city was administered by a rotating council of prominent citizens whose terms lasted only two months.  The early Medici (Cosimo the elder, his son Piero, and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent) held no official leadership roles, and rarely served on the governing councils.  But somehow no important decisions in Florence were ever made without them.

All the early Medici were enthusiastic supporters of the arts in many forms  In addition to sponsoring painters, sculptors and architects, Cosimo was also a humanist who read ancient Greek; Lorenzo was a credible poet with a sizable library.  They were not only interested in acquiring art, but in sponsoring and developing it.

What made their art patronage so interesting was that it was not conservative, but “edgy.”  Brunelleschi’s dome, championed by Cosimo, was the largest dome built in Western Europe since the Pantheon, and Donatello was the first sculptor to produce nudes since classical times.  Botticelli received many Medici commissions, and the young Michelangelo even lived for a while in Lorenzo’s house.

The later Medici, beginning with Duke Cosimo in the 1530s, were also huge patrons of the arts.  But although the art included some fine work, the tastes of these later Medici ran to the grandiose and the splendid.

Two monuments, a few minutes walk away from each other in the center of Florence, illustrate this contrast.  The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi was the 15th C home of the Medici family.  Its most famous work is the Cavalcade of the Magi, by Benozzo Gozzoli a fresco executed in the 1450s which covers three walls of a small private chapel.  Although in theory a religious subject, the fresco actually commemorates a Council held in the Florence 1430s, attended by both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Byzantine Emperor, which was an attempt to repair the schism between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in order to present a unified front against the Turks who were then threatening Constantinople).  The attempt failed – Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and the two churches remain divided to this day.  But the event put Florence on the map culturally — many of the Greeks who accompanied the Byzantine Emperor stayed on in Florence and became part of Cosimo’s humanist academy.

Cosimo wanted to celebrate the city of Florence hosting this event and his own role, without being too obvious about it.  The subject of the Three Magi provided an excuse to commemorate the visits of the two Emperors (who are depicted as two of the Magi), as well many other prominent citizens and visitors.  Cosimo himself is depicted as a man with relatively unassuming clothes, riding a donkey as a sign of humility – but he’s right in front.


Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459); the old man riding a donkey is believed to be Cosimo de Medici (Il Vecchio) and the younger man riding on the white horse next to him his son Piero


Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459); believed to be a depiction of Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologos, who had visited Florence in 1439

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459)

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459)

The use of recognizable faces in art was still relatively new – although Giotto had pioneered the style a century earlier, most religious art still used the flat, expressionless faces that had been used since Byzantine times.  But the use of recognizable faces was to become a distinguishing feature of Florentine Renaissance art.

Just a few minutes away from the Palazzo Medici are the Medici Chapels, which the later Medici built for their family tombs.  The tombs are built of the most expensive marbles and executed by artisans of outstanding quality.  But the whole thing is rather over the top.

Michelangelo executed some of the earlier tombs, starting with some lesser members of the family.   The tomb of the most important Medici of them all, Lorenzo, was left unfinished — a simple cenotaph for Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano (murdered in 1478) with a single Michelangelo Madonna.  Perhaps fittingly, this tome is the most pleasing.

Medici Chapel - Capella dei Principi; monumental tomb

Medici Chapel – Capella dei Principi; monumental tomb


Medici Chapel: Michelangelo Madonna (c. 1520: part of unfinished tomb of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici)

The main branch of the Medici family died out in the mid-18th C. The Austrians marched in and stayed (with a brief interruption by Napoleon) until the reunification of Italy in 1860.  But the last survivor of the Medici family, Anna Luisa, provided in her will that the art of Florence belonged to the people of Florence and was not to be removed.  Amazingly, her last wishes were honored, and the Medici collections form the basis of the museums in the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti.